What’s so special about spiritual gifts?

Are spiritual gifts supernatural abilities, possessed by select Christians? Who has them and why? How do Christians receive spiritual gifts? What are they for and what do they show us about Christianity and ourselves? These are only a few of the frequently asked questions that this article addresses concerning the 'gifts of the Holy Spirit'.

This article originally started as a summary of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology Chapter 52 (IVP, 1994), but then grew and developed into a more specific response to some aspects of Pentecostalism and the charismatic understanding of gifts of the Holy Spirit particularly.

We know that interest in spiritual gifts is at an all-time high in modern times, since theological expositions of the New Testament in earlier times did not even contain chapters on the subject, more often than not. However, Grudem observes that today, most systematic theologies will contain a specific treatment of the subject – largely in response to the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, and questions arising since interest in the subject accelerated at the end of the 1800s during the Holiness Movement in America.

Are spiritual gifts supernatural?

In his Systematic Theology, Grudem explains that the gifts are not necessary miraculous or ‘supernatural’ – it depends on how you define the ‘miraculous’. If a miracle is “any direct activity of God in the world” then all spiritual gifts are miraculous because they are all powered by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11; cf. vv. 4-6) But in this sense, everything that happens in the world would be miraculous (Ephesians 1:11; Dan 4:35; Matt 5:45). And then, in that case, a miracle would not exist, because you could not find anything that was not miraculous.

Therefore, we need to define a miracle in a narrower sense. A miracle might be considered as “a less common activity of God which raises people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to God” [1]. And in this case, it becomes clearer that some gifts such as prophecy and healing fit into this category because they bring amazement at the activity of God – while other gifts such as leadership, administration, giving and encouraging, do not.

This understanding is consistent with the six New Testament passages listing spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28 Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Peter 4:11), where the NT includes ‘natural’ abilities with the more ‘miraculous’ abilities in its lists of spiritual gifts.

These passages emphasise that it is the same Holy Spirit who gives all spiritual gifts, and works them; both miraculous and non-miraculous gifts. The same Spirit may empower an act of mercy as provides miraculous healing – and for the same purpose and ultimate effect: to build Christ’s church.

What is a spiritual gift?

Does this mean that all abilities are in fact gifts of the Holy Spirit? While it is true that all the abilities we think of as ‘natural’ are from God (1 Corinthians 4:7), not every natural ability should be considered a spiritual gift because Paul explains that all spiritual gifts must be given “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7) by the Holy Spirit who ‘empowers’ them (1 Corinthians 12:11) in order that they might “edify” the church (1 Corinthians 12:26), i.e. they must work for the building up the church – the Spirit enables them to work as part of Christ’s work, affecting his activity of building his body.

Therefore, this also means that not all abilities in use by Christians for the purpose of serving the church can be considered gifts of the Holy Spirit. While the God providentially works out “all things” for the good of Christians and his church (Romans 8:28), including evil acts done in or outside the church, the gifts of the Holy Spirit always come with his special, direct and good work in and for the church: Paul says the Corinthians were “enriched” in all their speech and knowledge as spiritual gifts came to them (1 Corinthians 1:5-7).

In general, when natural gifts such as teaching, helps, administration or musical gifts are given power (‘empowered’) by the Holy Spirit they show increased effectiveness and power in their use. So, we can in a sense distinguish between doing something with ‘natural’ (i.e. human) ability and doing the same thing when it is accompanied by power given by the Holy Spirit: we see the effect of the Spirit’s sovereign work in achieving the things that only he can do through our acts of service – unbelievers turning to the Lord, believers laying down their lives for one another.

In other words, a spiritual gift is an ability of one of Christ’s people, that the Spirit himself uses by providing it with his own power, to accomplish Christ’s own work. Therefore, spiritual gifts not only must be put to work for the purpose of building the church, but they also work in building up the church – that is, they have that Spirit enabled effect.

So putting that all together, a spiritual gift is simply an ability that is used by the Holy Spirit to serve the church; they are gifts of the Holy Spirit because he gives them his power for Christ’s own work of building his church – that is, they come with the ‘special effect’ of the Spirit when used in his service.

Are spiritual gifts special, or common to all?

Pentecostal teaching and the charismatic movement’s emphasis on a second experience for empowered Christian living and service has taught that the power of the Holy Spirit, including the reception of his gifts for effective ministry and service as a Christian, is only given to that subset of Christians who have received baptism with the Holy Spirit (for more about this topic elsewhere on this blog).

But the NT is clear that every Christian has one or more gifts of the Holy Spirit; that is they are common: “As each has received a gift, employ if for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (=multi-faceted / variegated) (1 Peter 4:10; see also 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11).

So being ‘gifted’ by the Holy Spirit is in fact not ‘special’ at all – it is common to all Christians; everyone is “able” because the Holy Spirit gives power to (empowers) the efforts of one or more of the abilities possessed by each and every individual in his body. In a very real sense, he uses us all to build his church by his power (Ephesians 4:4-16).

So, spiritual gifts are actually common, while given special effect by the Holy Spirit who uses them to accomplish Christ’s unique work in us his church; they are both common and special at the same time – common because they are given to all, special because they all affect the Spirit’s special work in his church!

Therefore in the church, the ‘special’ is ‘common’ place!

How do you know if you have a particular spiritual gift?

How strong or effective does a Christian’s ability need to be before we could consider it a spiritual gift? Wayne Grudem points out that although the NT does not directly answer this question, Paul speaks of these gifts as useful for the building up the church (1 Corinthians 14:12), and Peter likewise says that each person who has received a gift should remember to employ it “for one another” (1 Peter 4:10); therefore, these gifts/abilities must be strong enough to function for the benefit of the church, whether for the congregation or for individuals in it.

The fact that the NT insists that everyone member of Christ’s church has a gift to use should not worry Christians who feel they don’t know what gifts they possess or how to ‘discover’ (or uncover) these God-given abilities. Instead, we need to remember what the NT says about the Spirit’s use of what we might consider otherwise ‘natural’ abilities: God gives us all our abilities and his Spirit can use any of our abilities to accomplish Christ’s work (= spiritual gift).

And the NT does not limit the types of gifts that Christians possess, which he uses. The six different passages (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:11) that list spiritual gifts name 22 gifts, however, each of these lists are different and the only gift in each list is prophecy (if we ignore 1 Corinthians 7:7, which lists two gifts not listed in any of the other lists!).

So Paul was not giving nor aiming to give exhaustive lists. He could have listed many others; it depends entirely on how specific we want to be.

Therefore, since spiritual gifts are simply particular abilities that an individual has been given with sufficient strength for its use to be of effective service to his church, spiritual gifts are not mysterious and necessarily “supernatural”; they are more often simple strengths and particularly developed abilities that all Christians experience.

It is true that gifts may vary in strength (Romans 12:16); this is part of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty (1 Corinthians 12:11). A person's gift (e.g. admin or teaching) may not be strong enough for the entire congregation to benefit, if the church is large enough or if others have that gift more highly developed – but that same person in a different context (a smaller younger church, or with a small group within the church, or with younger people) may find that his/her gift is relatively strong and very effective/beneficial.

And of course, gifts can be neglected (1 Timothy 4:14) and may need to be rekindled (2 Timothy 1:6). Though gifts are usually “possessed” by an individual (permanently) (i.e. “I have the gift of prophecy”; he is a “leader”), this does not mean that they can be exercised ‘at will’ – we see this with gifts such as healing or evangelism, where it is more obvious that the effect of the Spirit’s power always depends entirely on the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty: “he apportions [=continues to apportion / continually] to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11).

Some gifts, however, may be given for a particular unique need or event (e.g. Stephen’s strength and vision from the Spirit when he was being martyred). And in another sense spiritual gifts are not permanent at all – this is more obvious with some gifts such as marriage, which can come to a sudden end. And in the same way, the Spirit may withdraw any gift or cause it to be stronger for a time, or weaker: he is Lord.

In fact, all gifts will come to an end; in the end, all the spiritual gifts will be withdrawn (1 Corinthians 13:8-13) because they will not be needed– the imperfect will disappear. [Note that in Romans 11:29, “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable” is in that context talking about God’s continuing purpose for the Jewish people – spiritual gifts are not in view].

But we are all responsible to God with what he has given us to use effectively, for the good of his church. And we are also responsible to grow in the use of those abilities he has given us like good stewards.

How do you know what gift you have?

Know your abilities! The NT writers assume you will know what gifts you have; they only talk about using them; particularly telling us to use them! (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10). If you don’t know what your gifts are, either you have not been given enough opportunities to serve/use your abilities – or you are not taking opportunities to serve/use your abilities. If it is a matter of you not getting involved/doing much – you can begin by asking what needs to be done and/or what opportunities exist in your church? And particularly, “what gifts are most needed in my church for building it up?”

You can also ask of yourself, what interests/desires and abilities do you have that could be used to build up the church? You can also ask your church/leaders to give you some advice and/or feedback about yourself and your abilities. Ask God to give you the will and commitment to find out what you can do / what needs to be done and increasingly use the abilities God has given you to help the church with that work.

Try serving in different ways in different areas of the church/ministry. (Sunday school, welfare/helps, prayer, fundraising and giving, administration, leading a bible study, organising a youth event…) Then continue to use the abilities and the opportunities that you have, which are given by God. Be content but also increase your abilities and opportunities as you are able.

Are there particular gifts that all Christians have in common?

If gifts are common to all, are some of the gifts ‘common’? (I.e. given to all Christians; e.g. Does every Christian have the gift of teaching or prophecy)?

Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 that everyone does not have any one of the gifts (“Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” etc) So, even though it may be true that everyone ‘can’ teach – in the sense that everyone has some ability to teach others (and the same applies to evangelism and many other abilities), we need to remember that a spiritual gift is an ability that the Spirit puts to a special effect.

It is true that every Christian does have, in a sense, some ability related to all of the gifts – for example, we can all pray for healing, we can all serve, and lead or teach in the right context to a degree etc. But those with a spiritual gift, in one area of ability, are those who have been given a particular strength and effectiveness in that area by the Holy Spirit for service to his church.

And this is what he chooses to vary across each member of his body (1 Corinthians 12:4-31). He gives to each as he wills (1 Cor 12:11); he arranges the body as he chooses (1 Cor 12:11). Not all are apostles, teachers, preachers and pastors!

What do gifts show us about Christ?

Gifts express Christ’s sovereignty and varied grace! This should humble us; Christ’s sovereign provision of the Spirit’s gifts to his church should give us contentment, not discontent with what we’ve been graciously given! God gives his church an amazing variety of gifts which expresses the variety of his grace. So, we should appreciate and recognise people who have gifts that differ from ours and also differ from our expectations of what gifts should look like.

And a healthy church will have a great diversity of gifts, and this will not lead to fragmentation, but to greater unity (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). This is of course counter-culture to the world, which creates unity by joining together with people similar with like abilities. But the Holy Spirit’s expression in the church is a community of people who are different from each other; God’s wisdom is expressed in this by creating a community of diversity because this requires us to depend on one another for unity (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).

Therefore, God gives us our differences so that we will have to depend on one another. So, we shouldn’t be actually trying to create homogenous, isolated, self-sufficient and self-dependent communities in the first place – but diversified and inter-dependent ones.

What do gifts show us about the Church?

Gifts should unify the church because they are a common work of one Spirit that we all share! The same Spirit gives and works all gifts, whether they amaze people or not (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). So, we should be cautious of thinking of some gifts as supernatural and others as natural. The NT does not make this distinction but emphasises the opposite: they are all gifts given by the same Spirit who works them all in every one of us.

Therefore, the Pentecostal and charismatic understanding that considers some gifts as being more ‘from the Spirit’ than other abilities, devalues and deemphasises those other good effective abilities that the Lord gives for his church.

However we shouldn’t swing the other way either, overemphasising the ‘natural’. After all, if we believe that God is really among us, we will know that he can and may do anything “supernatural” among us at any time. The natural/supernatural divide is really a false dichotomy; the NT worldview is a continuous interaction between the physical and spiritual world, between the visible and the unseen realm behind it.

What do gifts show us about ourselves?

Gifts of the Spirit really show us where our hearts are at as individuals; they do this by revealing what motivates us in our Christian service. The NT commands us to seek gifts in order to show love, not to show off! Seeking after gifts for this purpose is good since they are abilities for the common good, for serving the church (Recall: they are abilities empowered by the Holy Spirit in service of the church).

It follows then that if our hearts are in the ‘right place’, we will seek the most useful gifts that will enable us to serve the church the best/most (1 Corinthians 14:12). In fact, the NT says that the greatest gifts are the gifts that build up the church the most (1 Corinthian 12:31). E.g. The Corinthians were told to seek prophecy most of all because it would build up and benefit the congregation the most (1 Corinthians 14:1-5).

So, as Christians, we should be seeking to identify which gifts are most needed in our churches and praying that God would give those gifts to us and/or to others. Our motivation should not be affected by how impressive or amazing we think one gift is over another; our motivation should be the needs around us (within our church/of the church).

We mustn’t forget that Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:19) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) came under judgment for motives of self-seeking and self-glorifying. This is because Jesus who gives the gifts of the Holy Spirit is also Lord. If we have the greatest gifts but not love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1); is it really out of love that you desire what you are seeking?

What do gifts show us about Christianity?

We get judged on the effort we put into the task, not the tools we get put into our hands! Gifts are only tools we’re given; we get judged on our effort and faithfulness in our task as Christ’s servants. We all have the same task, and that is to obey Christ in serving his church until he returns. It’s our godliness and obedience that will be rewarded, not the tools he has given us on the job.

In fact, spiritual gifts have little to do with spiritual maturity. The Corinthians were incredibly gifted but were “worldly” (1 Corinthians 3:1). Since gifts are given to all, it follows that even the most immature Christian may be the most gifted! We must never forget that God works in all things, including through unbelievers and enemies of Christianity too! (Matt 7:22-23). So whatever we do – we mustn’t evaluate ourselves or any other Christian on the basis of ability/giftedness!

The whole purpose of spiritual gifts is obedience to Christ with the aim of doing our best to love others, caring, building the church, and living as a holy community. If God chooses to give us one gift or another, what does it matter? It is his decision to direct what he wants his church to receive and benefit from. And we know that when he comes again, he will “give to each one according to what he has done.” This will be an individual judgment based not on what was given but on what we did with what he gave us; it’s not the effect we have had on others or the result we have achieved that matters (as this comes from him, not us!) – but it’s the effort that we gave to him (arising from our faithfulness to him), which is the gift that will please him on that Day.

Not Big Enough

In Your Church is Too Small, Sam Freney (editor of The Briefing) gives an excellent update on where the Hillsong movement is at, including some really positive and insightful reflections from his experience of attending the 2012 Hillsong Conference. And with a fair-minded and refreshing perspective, he makes the challenging call to a movement that has spread globally: you still need to grow beyond yourself.

Freney acknowledges that the movement's strengths far exceed their pursuit of musical and artistic  excellence and events production:

"Behind the scenes—or at least out of the spotlight—Hillsong seems to contain plenty of faithful, enthusiastic Christians who want to see Jesus glorified in what they do, and who give Scriptural thought to what they do."

But despite the excellent way various individuals or ministries in the church operate, he shows how the church as a whole -- the overall architecture and construction of the church in grand view -- is still disappointingly dwarfed:

"There may have been 20,000 people in the room, gathered as one church under Christ, but the church was too small. It was too small because the gospel being proclaimed was too small: it was just about you and me, and how God makes our lives better."

This is an excellent article for anyone who wants to understand the pros and cons of the Hillsong movement. But it sums up not only the immediate highs and lows of a church excursion to Hillsong; it also explains why in the end, we're left more than sad and grieved, but also dis-unified. Freney gets to the heart of what divides us -- why we can't fellowship and work together as 'evangelicals' with the broader Hillsong movement:

"From everything that I’ve seen and heard, at the conference and visiting Hillsong church on a number of occasions, there’s simply no guarantee that if you go or take someone along to church there that you’re going to hear the gospel. No doubt you will be drawn into enthusiastic fellowship with people who love being part of the church, and (literally) sing Jesus’ praises constantly. There’s no question you will meet many lovely, faithful, committed Christians. Yet I cannot see any reason to believe that if you go regularly that you will be taught God’s word, or be instructed to sit under it and let it change you and form and re-form you. In fact, I have good reason to believe that you will be taught something else altogether. 
You will hear an attractive message about the God of the universe, committed to you, promising you many good things you can receive if you honestly believe in them. You will hear about the blessing God has planned for you, the better job or bigger house or healthier future in store. But you are unlikely to hear much biblical, orthodox Christianity. 
I cannot in good conscience commend fellowship with Hillsong. I can’t recommend that anyone go and make this their church. I can also understand why many churches decide not to sing their songs, given that singing them profiles Hillsong and gives a tacit endorsement to their movement. The fact that there are good things about the movement and good people in the movement is not really the point; the gospel message championed by the church is distorted, and in the end being part of that is not the way that we love or care for people."

Freney's story and own beginnings (as a Pentecostal in NZ and Sydney in the C3 movement) reminded me in part of my own experience as a Hillsong college student back in 1997. That was 15 years ago. Many of my reflections here at Talking Pentecostalism are based on a perspective that dates back to that time. How far has the movement come since then? This article asks the same question. And much to my dismay, the answer is, not far.

It would be nice if my criticisms here at Talking Pentecostalism were now becoming outdated; I have people write to me and reflect on their positive experiences of visiting a Hillsong-derivative church meeting after being pleasantly surprised by the quality of ministry of the individuals leading, or the genuine fellowship, or the richness of recent church song lyrics. I do not doubt the reality of the positive and widespread impact that these accounts demonstrate has and continues to occur through the Hillsong movement. And I praise God for his grace in this.

But Freney's penetrating view of the foundation of this house that is the Hillsong movement is a reminder to keep praying for deep change that gets to the basis of what is evangelicalism. This house may be home to a whole heap of members who are themselves thankfully supported, upheld and nourished by Christ. But if the house itself is standing on anything other than Christ and his Word, it's on sinking sand:

"We have a fairly major disagreement about the nature of church, evangelism, and ministry—that all of these things ought to be built very firmly on the gospel and the word of God. Hearing and speaking God’s word is not a distinguishing feature of a Hillsong church service, which suggests that Hillsong church is not ‘evangelical’ in any meaningful sense."

To read the full article go to

Worship, the Trinity, and the charismatic movement

The Trinity has been largely neglected in Pentecostalism, as in the entire Western Church right throughout the centuries. So demonstrates Robert Letham in The Holy Trinity. Most striking and significant for me personally in Letham's excellent and much needed book is his chapter, The Trinity, Worship and Prayer. He outlines the importance of understanding the Trinity for our right response to God in true Christian worship and prayer. Apart from the fact that there would be no true Christian experience without a knowledge of the Trinity, Letham quickly and convincingly shows that authentically Christian worship and prayer is distinctively trinitarian:
"Our communion with God "consists in his communication of himself unto us, with our returnal unto him... flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him. [1] (p. 414) ... 
Here is the reverse movement to that seen as the ground of the church's worship--by the Holy Spirit through Christ to the Father. This encompasses our entire response to, and relationship with, God--from worship through the whole field of Christian experience...
Putting it another way, from the side of God, the worship of the church is the communion of the Holy Trinity with us his people. We are inclined to view worship as what we do, but if we follow our argument, it is first and foremost something the triune God does, our actions initiated and encompassed by his (p. 416) ...

The worship of the church is thus not only grounded in the mediation of Christ, but takes place in union with him and through his mediatorial work and continued intercession (p. 417) ...

Since Christian worship is determined by initiated by shaped by, and directed to the Holy Trinity, we worship the three with one undivided act of adoration (p. 418).
The Holy Trinity also has this to say specifically on the Pentecostal focus on the Holy Spirit, under the heading, Worship, Perichoresis, and the Charismatic Movement:
"Richard Garrin, in a recent article, points to a tendency in the charismatic movement to separate the Holy Spirit from Christ. He counters by pointing to the close connection that Paul draws between Christ and the Spirit [2]. This argument is undergirded by the patristic teaching on perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of the three persons, all occupying the same divine space. The Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, the Holy Spirit is in the Son and the Father, the Father is in the Holy Spirit, and the Son is in the Holy Spirit. Thus, to worship one person at the expense of the others is to divide the undivided Trinity. Worship of any one of the three at once entails worship of all three and worship of the indivisible Trinity. An undue emphasis on one person, whether it be the focus on Jesus in pietism or the concentration on the Holy Spirit in charismatic circles, is a distortion. Owen, in his discussion, is careful to guard against this danger." (p. 421)

Dividing the undivided Trinity; it might not seem like such a serious distortion, until we're convinced about the fiercely and uniquely Trinitarian emphasis and focus of New Testament Christianity in the Scriptures. The authors of the NT of course got this from Jesus, who it seems did not cease to explain and insist upon the importance of understanding his relationship to the Father, and in turn his relationship with the Spirit. 

Letham begins his section on the Trinity and Worship by calling us stop neglecting in the Western Church the uniquely Christian doctrine of God as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit:
"God-centred worship (can worship be anything else?) must, by definition, give center stage to what is distinctive of Christianity, the high-water mark of God's self-revelation in the Bible. Yet... In the West, the Trinity has in practice been relegated to such an extent that most Christians are little more than practical modalists. As Laats comments, "Instead of being in the centre of christian worship and thinking it has been marginalised"...
[And he goes on to give this great example...] 
J. I. Packer's best-seller Knowing God (1973) has only seven pages out of 254 on the Trinity. He recognizes that for most Christians it is an esoteric mystery to which lip service may be paid once a year on Trinity Sunday. However, after this chapter is over, he carries on as if nothing has happened...

A right understanding of God as a Trinity changes the way understand the Baptism in the Spirit (See here for an article outlining what the New Testament teaches about Baptism with the Spirit in context).

We need to stop neglecting the New Testament's unique and insistent focus on God as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and how our knowledge of that Union is to shape our whole response to him. Pentecostals need a greater focus on the persons of the Trinity; that is, Pentecostalism needs to be more Christ-ian!


Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity - In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship. P&R Publishing Company: New Jersey, 2004.

[1] Owen, Of Communion with God, in Works, ed. Goold, 2:8-9.
[2] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., "Challenges of the Charismatic Movement to the Reformed Tradition," Ordained Servant 7 (1998): 48-57.